Desiree Linden: How to master the marathon mind game

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Desiree Linden is one of three American women who will compete in the Olympic marathon on Sunday.

In one of the most riveting road racing finishes in recent history, Desiree Linden (then Desiree Davila) nearly became the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon since 1985. Over the final kilometer of the 2011 race, she found herself dueling sprint-for-sprint with Caroline Kilel of Kenya -- only to lose by a slim two seconds. Linden went on to make two U.S. Olympic marathon teams and crack the top five in Boston (again), Berlin, and New York City. On Sunday, she'll race alongside fellow Americans Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg in the Olympic marathon in Rio de Janeiro.

In short, she has learned from that mental error in Boston five years ago. And now she's not only tenacious; Linden is smarter, too. When you're redlining it for 2 hours 22 minutes 38 seconds or longer, there's plenty to think about. How does she outwit her opponents over the long haul? Here's what she had to say.

Start smart, then end with heart

The general rule for the marathon is to run the first 20 miles with your head and the last 10K with your heart. So I plan for everything. The night before a race, I'll hash through all the scenarios and figure out how to respond to almost anything that can happen. The plan is very individual -- what's the best race for me? Dial into that plan for 20 miles, then race the last 10K on guts and grit and inspiration. You can still be smart within that last 10K, but to me, that's the dividing line. First 20 miles in your head; last 10K in your heart.

Use that watch early on

For those "in the head" miles, I'm very aware of my watch. I know what I've been able to do in workouts and what pace I'm ready for, so I take splits and think, "At some point, this type of mile is way too fast for me. I can't maintain that, let's bring it back." Or, "This is too slow and there's a bunch of kickers here so start picking up the pace." 

But it's all individual on what your workouts indicate you're ready for. So it's being logical in that way. What do my workouts say that I am able to do for this marathon, and use that to get to that 20-mile mark.

Let your mind wander

It's such a long time to be out there, so at certain points, you just have to kind of let the mind relax because you can overthink it. Paralysis by analysis is absolutely real. So for me, I'm always noticing fans' signs. That stuff's kind of fun. Also, if you're in a really big marathon, you have to appreciate that -- like in Boston, you're running down the center of Boston. The roads are closed for you to have this running parade. It's an incredible feeling. There's always a point where I have to smile because it's really cool and very rare. Not a lot of sports get to go out in the city and stop traffic.

Go through every scenario beforehand

In Boston 2011, I pictured myself winning that race for so long and it was always like I would pull away with three miles to go or something. I never, ever envisioned a sprint finish so I was like, "Whoa, this is not what I expected to be experiencing right now and I didn't have a picture for what that would look like. So visualize everything."

And visualize what you want, too

Figure out what you want from the race. What's your motivation? Do you want to get across the finish line and not care what the clock says? Do you want to stop at every mile and drink a beer with a buddy? Whatever you're trying to accomplish, picture yourself doing that. So for your first marathon, visualize that point when you cross finish line and go, "I'm a marathoner!" Picture the crowd and what it's going to smell like and sound like and feel like -- and have that moment ready so when you get tired or you start to hurt in the race, you can think about that, "Oh yeah, this is why I'm doing this."

It's also the idea of acting as if you are the thing you want to become. Just act like that every day. I'm a marathoner, I'm going to do the training because I have this picture in my mind of what it's going to be like.

Above all, be patient

The marathon all boils down to patience. The first 20, you have to keep yourself in check. You're going to feel amazing and you're going to want to bank time, but you have to be patient. It's the same in training. You're not going to be the New York City marathon winner on the first week of training. Or the second week. Or the third. For us, it takes years. But you're going to get better.

It truly is a journey. You start, and you're like, "The first 10 days are horrible. I don't know why I'm doing this." Then you look back 10 days later and you're like, "I'm in shape!" Each week you can look back at your training log, see how far you've come, and realize there's so much more to grow. It's incredible when you look back to day one or the day before the race when you're nervous and like, "I don't know how I'm going to do. Am I ready for this?" Then you cross the line and you're a marathoner. It's kind of cool.

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